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Operation “Masterpiece”. Six facts about crimes in the sphere of art from the book by Robert Whitman

In September, Ivanov, Mann & Ferber released a new book, Operation Masterpiece, written by former FBI agent Robert Wittman and co-authored by John Schiffman. What is interesting about this book? First of all, the personality of the author. Robert Wittman spent twenty years solving crimes in the field of art, searching for stolen antiquities and paintings.

In total, he managed to return works of art totaling tens of millions of dollars. Among these items were a gold plate of an Indian chief, and a sculpture of Rodin, and an old battle flag, and paintings by Norman Rockwell, Picasso and Monet. In fact, operation Masterpiece, in which part of the paintings stolen from the Gardner Museum were found, was the pinnacle of Wittman’s career (despite the fact that the works were missed due to the accidental disclosure of Wittman’s identity by the French authorities). Recall that in the latter case we are talking about the investigation of the robbery in 1990, when it was stolen 11 masterpieces, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

From the book, readers will learn a lot of interesting details about how to work undercover FBI agents. And how the illegal art and antiquities market works.
Successful case: a self-portrait of Rembrandt worth $ 35 million, stolen from the National Museum in Stockholm in 2000, was found thanks to Robert Wittman. In the photo: the picture and money. $250,000 – “bait” for criminals desperate to find a buyer. Photo source
Fact #1. Crimes in the sphere of art to be a very profitable
It is believed that crimes in the field of art – it is almost the whole direction in the shadow business with a turnover of more than $ 6 billion a year. However, the figures are very approximate, because not all States keep accurate records and provide statistics, but only about a third of the 192 member States of the UN. In any case, art crime ranks fourth in terms of its turnover after drug trafficking, money laundering and arms sales.

Criminals use paintings and statues as a kind of security for transactions, including the sale of weapons and drugs (attentive readers will recall that this played an important role in Donna Tartt’s book “the Goldfinch” — and, as it turns out, it was not an artistic fiction).
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Fact #2. Crime in the arts has not always brought high profits
For a long time, works of art were expensive, but not enough to interest criminals. Everything changed when in 1958 at the auction “Sotheby’s” for Cezanne’s painting “the Boy in the red vest” buyer paid 616 thousand dollars. Before that, the most expensive painting sold cost about 360 thousand dollars. But prices rose steadily, and in the 1980s for paintings began to offer seven-figure sums. In 1989, van Gogh’s Irises were purchased by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for $ 49 million. Then this amount was shocking, but prices continued to grow, and today this value will not surprise anyone.

Criminals followed the fashion in this area. For example, the 1960s were marked by several major thefts of impressionist works. Then there was an interest in the classics. But after a record expensive sale of” Irises ” van Gogh robbers interest in the paintings has increased simply many times. By the way, the van Gogh Museum has suffered twice in only 11 years.
Vincent Van Gogh. A view of the sea at Scheveningen
A view of the sea at Scheveningen
Vincent Van Gogh
22.08.1882, 34.5×51 cm
Vincent Van Gogh. Parishioners come from the reformed Church in Nyuenene
Parishioners come from the reformed Church in Nyuenene
Vincent Van Gogh
1885, 41.3 x 32.1 cm
Vincent Van Gogh. A view of the sea at Scheveningen
A view of the sea at Scheveningen
Vincent Van Gogh
22.08.1882, 34.5×51 cm
Vincent Van Gogh. Parishioners come from the reformed Church in Nyuenene
Parishioners come from the reformed Church in Nyuenene
Vincent Van Gogh
1885, 41.3 x 32.1 cm
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In December 2002, two thieves climbed a ladder to the roof of the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, broke a window and in a few minutes took out two paintings – “sea View at Scheveningen”and” Exit from the Protestant Church in Nuenen.” Both are valued at about $ 30 million. The works were found and returned to the Museum.
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Jan Vermeer. Concert
Concert
Jan Vermeer
1660, 72.5×64.7 cm
Excerpt from the book “Operation “Masterpiece“»
“Miami, 2007
A platinum rolls-Royce with armored Windows glided East on the Palmetto freeway toward Miami beach, six stolen paintings in its bulletproof trunk.
The great works of Degas, Dali, Klimt, Georgia O’keeffe, Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall were wrapped in thin brown paper, taped with transparent tape and roughly pushed back. Lorenz Konya, a Parisian millionaire, was in the driver’s seat. He shifted to the left lane and drove the three-ton beast forward: one hundred thirty, one hundred forty-five kilometers per hour. A formidable stainless steel grille cut through the air.
… The passenger seat was occupied by a Frenchman named Sonny, calm, plump, with tousled hair, round sweet face and unlit Marlboro cigarette in his mouth. He, too, was trying to see something suspicious.
Sunny and Lorenz thought of me as some kind of shady American art dealer-a man who worked with the legal and illegal art markets, an international broker who was familiar with multimillion — dollar deals. They didn’t know that I was actually a special agent for the Federal Bureau of investigation, a senior investigator for the FBI’s art crimes team…
… Thanks to their connections in the French criminal world and my money, we began negotiations to buy a long-lost Vermeer, a pair of Rembrandts and five Degas sketches. The collection was worth five hundred million dollars and, more importantly, was very famous. The masterpieces were stolen seventeen years ago during the greatest unsolved crime in art history: the robbery of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.»
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Fact #3. Suffer from private collectors
There is such an organization Art Loss Register — the world’s largest private database of stolen works. According to her, about 52% of the stolen works listed in the database were stolen from private collections. And the rightful owners are in no hurry to bring the fact of theft to the public, and in General, not all information reaches the press. About 10% of the works are stolen from museums, and 8% – from churches. But everything else, and it is mostly ancient works of art, disappears directly from the site of archaeological excavations.
Pierre Auguste Renoir. Madeleine with flowers in her hair, leaning on her elbow
Madeleine with flowers in her hair, leaning on her elbow
Pierre Auguste Renoir
1918, 50.2×41.3 cm
The canvas of Auguste Renoir went to an armed criminal on September 8, 2011 in the robbery of a wealthy house in West Houston, Texas: the terrified owner pointed to a painting worth $ 1 million.
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Fact #4. Illegal trade in antiquities is a disaster for scientists
Of all the art crimes, the illegal trade in antiquities is the most damaging. Robbers do not just invade shrines, they destroy graves and monuments of antiquity for profit, and at the same time destroy the very opportunity to learn more about the past. After all, the provenance of the painting stolen from the Museum is known. And the antiquities had yet to be studied, and archaeologists needed context for that — they needed to know where that particular thing lay, how, and with what objects in the neighborhood.

However, in some countries, the scale of illegal trade in such works of ancient art is simply amazing. And in some third world countries, illegal trade in art and antiquities (unofficially, of course) is considered a way to improve the economic situation, and especially in those countries where there is a war. “In Iraq, for example, historical monuments are one of the few valuable local commodities (and easier to steal than oil),” Wittman writes. Up to 90% of excavations in Niger have been looted. To meet the demand of Western collectors for ethnic art, countries such as Cambodia, Ethiopia and Peru, looters have turned archaeological sites into a real lunar landscape, and local authorities look at it through their fingers.

Robert Wittman. Photo source
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Fact #5. On questionable goods there is a respectable buyer
Although the UN has developed international protocols to combat the theft of antiquities, in practice, their requirements are not always respected. In particular, because each country has its own laws and regulations, and it happens that dubious works of art are bought by quite respectable institutions, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of art or the Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who bought a once stolen statue of Aphrodite for $ 18 million.

“The most prominent participants in the stolen antiquities market-grave robbers themselves and thieves who carry objects from shrines-earn pennies compared to the traders at the other end of the chain. On average, their profit is only one to two percent of the final price. The Sicilians, who illegally dug up in Morgantina silver collection, sold it for a thousand dollars. In the end, one collector bought it for a million dollars and resold to the Metropolitan Museum of art for two million seven hundred thousand, ” writes Robert Wittman.

Sometimes it ends in a big scandal, as it did with the Getty Museum and the related police investigation, but even then the staff claimed they knew nothing suspicious about the origin of the art.

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